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Opinion: Invest in Our Schools Now!


This is a guest opinion piece by Brigid D’Souza and Dr. Jyl Josephson who are parent leaders with Jersey City Together’s Education Team. Ms. D’Souza is the parent of two children at PS 3 and the creator of CivicParent.org (and a writer for this publication) and Dr. Josephson is the parent of a child at PS 26 and an associate professor of political science, women’s & gender studies at Rutgers University Newark.

For the last two and a half years, Jersey City Together’s Education Team and parents across the city have been engaged in a focused fight to increase local funding for our public schools. For the first two years, our work helped create incremental progress — an extra $5.3 million in 2018, another $6 million in 2019.

But this has not been nearly enough.

Jersey City Public Schools is a 40-school Pre-K through Grade 12 district serving nearly 30,000 students. Our public schools are the most diverse institution in the city. Seventy percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch while 38% of our students are Hispanic, 27% are Black, 18% are Asian, and 14% are White.

This is the diversity our political leaders lift up every chance they get. It’s the kind of institution in which they should be clamoring to invest.

But, for the last decade, while gleaming skyscrapers and luxury apartments have gone up across the city, Jersey City has instead stripped educational resources from the children — mostly black and brown, mostly lower income — attending its public schools.

At a time when state funding is repeatedly being cut and our schools are already $125 million underfunded, Jersey City sends only 24 cents of every dollar of property taxes to its schools. Last year, we saw the immediate impact of this when our schools lost 250 staff, including 160 teachers.

It is utterly unconscionable.

This year, however, the Jersey City Public Schools have had a real leader in Superintendent Franklin Walker.

Superintendent Walker stepped out and offered a budget that spoke to the real needs of the children of the district, adding $50 million to the budget.

His proposal would rehire the hundreds of teachers we lost last year, hire 13 new social workers, 3 new high school counselors, a mental health specialist, and other support staff. It would invest in English Language Learners, visual arts, STEAM programming, and make targeted investments in some of Jersey City’s highest needs schools.

These resources will be all the more important next year as we deal with the fallout from this pandemic.

But the reaction from the political class in Jersey City has been both swift and exactly what you might expect in Hudson County politics.

One BOE trustee said new teachers aren’t needed because “class sizes don’t matter.” Another trustee was dismissive because the people who called in to support the budget were “just moms.” More than one claimed they didn’t want to take anything away from children, while at the same time proposing cuts that would do just that.

In short, Superintendent Walker is being told to lower his sights. Our children, it seems, are not worth the investment.

While it may seem politically expedient now to demand the district reign in local property taxes, we believe we will look back on this moment and see these calls as more than just cowardly. They are proposals that will actively harm our city’s most vulnerable residents.

Education policy experts agree that budget cuts during the Great Recession hurt kids like those in Jersey City Public Schools. Now, they argue, is precisely the time to invest more in our public schools, particularly if we claim to care about inequality.

There is still time for board trustees to make the right choice. But time is running out.

It is always a good time, and a responsible decision, to invest in the next generation. But the current moment demands that investment even more.

 

Header: Public speaking at the January 30 Board of Education meeting, courtesy Jersey City Together’s Facebook page

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School Board Approves $736 Million Budget Proposal Representing a 47% Increase in the School Tax Levy


Final Budget for FY 2020-2021 Still Weeks Away
Board to Use Time for More Discussion and Public Input

At Friday’s special meeting of the Jersey City School Board parents praised Superintendent Franklin Walker’s proposed $736 million school budget for FY 2020-2021 and urged board members to approve it. If approved, it would increase the school tax levy (the part of assessed property taxes allocated to the public schools) $64 million, bringing the levy to $201 million.

Facing a midnight deadline to send an approval of the $736 million budget to Interim Executive County Superintendent Melissa Pearce, the board gathered at its Claremont Avenue headquarters to discuss the proposed budget. Eight of the nine board members supported the budget, but several members voiced concern that because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with schools closed until further notice, an increased tax levy would burden homeowners at a time when many people are losing or getting laid off from their jobs. Superintendent Walker acknowledged these are tough times, but said children must come first.

Superintendent Franklin Walker, photo by Sally Deering

“I’m asking the board to invest in our children from the highest achiever to the most vulnerable,” Superintendent Walker said. “We are navigating difficult times, but our children are worth the sacrifice. If you think the cost to educate children of today is expensive, the cost not to educate them is much higher and has much greater consequence.”

Trustee Alexander Hamilton said he would like to postpone the vote during these uncertain times.

“I understand we want to pass this budget,” Trustee Hamilton said, “but I need to know what’s going on in the world, what’s going on in the city. I’m asking for this to be pushed back 30–60 days. I don’t care about the county. I care that the process is done right, and we make the proper assessment to get this done.”

Hamilton made a motion to postpone the vote, but no one seconded it.

Superintendent Walker’s budget includes the continuation of all existing programs and services, funding for ESL, a STEAM Academy, additional social workers and high school counselors, a mental health specialist and psychologist. The budget also calls for no teacher or staff layoffs or dismissals. Many of these concerns were brought up by parents in previous board meetings, and it seems Superintendent Walker listened.

Brigid D’Souza, a leader with Jersey City Together and a mother of two students at P.S. 3, said in response to the proposed school budget: “The initial budget from Superintendent Walker is both courageous and reasonable. It takes seriously the needs of Jersey City’s students and particularly its students who have the most needs. We hope the board does the right thing tonight and passes it, so they can begin more detailed discussions over the next two months.”

The school budget includes a $64 million school levy increase, which represents a 47% increase over last year’s school tax levy, but should not be mistaken for a 47% increase in property tax, which is made up of municipal, county and school taxes. The 2019-2020 school levy was $137 million. The 47% increase of $64 million will bring the school levy up to $201 million.

But the 2020-2021school budget still has a shortfall, Trustee Mussab Ali said.

Trustee Mussab Ali, photo by Sally Deering

“I think we need to recognize this is not a fully-funded budget,” Trustee Ali said. “Our schools last year were underfunded by $155 million. This year, despite the tax increase that we have, we would still be underfunded by $80 million based on the state formula of what is adequacy. That means last year we were underfunded by $5,000 per pupil. A student in our district was getting $5,000 less than what the state thinks is a thorough and efficient education. Even after our budget today, a student in our district will be getting $2,600 less than what the state thinks is a thorough and efficient education.”

Trustee Mussab Ali also wanted to clarify that the meeting that night was for the adoption of the budget, not a vote on the final budget.

“It doesn’t mean that today is the last day of the budget process,” Trustee Ali said. “It doesn’t mean this is the final version of the budget. We still will be getting public input and will be working on the budget over the course of the next six weeks. After that, we will vote to adopt a final budget.”

Parents called in during the public comments section of the meeting to voice their opinions. Scott Welfel, the father of a first-grade student said: “When we saw Superintendent Walker’s proposal,  we were thrilled. This is the type of leadership we need. We saw the mayor’s response. We think (it) was alarmist in an unsubstantiated way.”

Werfel was talking about Mayor Steven Fulop’s dismissal of the $736 million budget as “really irresponsible” as reported on NJ.com. The Mayor’s school budget plan had proposed $45 million in cuts and a $25 million yearly increase to the school tax levy over the next three years. The school board did not adopt any of those measures in its proposed budget.

“They’re going to destroy the taxpayers,” Mayor Fulop said. “They’re going to destroy residents, both renters and homeowners. People are struggling, and it’s not going to get easier for a couple of months.”

Superintendent Franklin Walker doesn’t think the mayor sees the big picture. He said the budget that’s being presented is part of the district’s strategic plan that prepares students for college and for jobs that have not even been created yet. Walker said that it’s the board’s responsibility to ensure students are academically competitive now and in the future. It’s called “future proofing,” he said.

“The strategic plan drives our budget,” Superintendent Walker said. “We’ve seen a significant decrease in the funding of millions of dollars over the last few years. This year, we have an increased allocation for our charter schools of $13 million. The cost of operating continues to increase. Last year, we had to lay off 400 teachers to submit a balanced budget. Our students deserve the best qualified teachers. In order to make Jersey City more desirable and continue to expand, we need all of our students and all of our schools to be successful.”

Making the midnight deadline, the board approved the school budget 8-1 with Trustee Alexander Hamilton the sole dissenter. School Business Administrator Regina Robinson said it would proceed to the county for approval if it covers all the guidelines. Assuming Hudson County approves it, the board would then have between April 24 and May 7 to adopt the budget before it went to the state for approval. During that window of time, there would be a public hearing for Jersey City residents and additional discussions by the board.

School Board President Lorenzo Richardson presided over the meeting with Trustees Mussab Ali, Alexander Hamilton, Gerald Lyons, Lekendrick Shaw and Noemi Velazquez in attendance, and Marilyn Roman, Gina Verdibello and Joan Terrell-Paige on speakerphone.

 

The School Board Caucus Meeting is scheduled for Mon, March 23 at 6 pm. It will not be open to the public, but may be viewed live on Facebook.com.

Header: Jersey City Board of Education special meeting on March 20, photo by Sally Deering

 

 

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JC School Board Holds Public Meeting on 2020-2021 Budget


Parents and Educators Implore the Board to Put Children First

Hillary Clinton wrote, “It Takes a Village” to raise a child. In the case of Jersey City’s public-school children, it takes a budget that will address their needs, from counseling to a decent breakfast.

A small yet impassioned group of parents and teachers spoke at the school board’s public meeting held at the Jersey City Board of Education’s (BOE) Claremont Avenue office Thursday night. They were there to give the nine-member board their input as it prepares the 2020-2021 school budget. The first draft goes to the county’s superintendent of schools on March 20, and the budget must be passed by May 14.

The Thursday night meeting in the Dr. Emery Konick, Jr. Conference Center took place two days after Mayor Seven Fulop and Ward D Councilman Michael Yun held a press conference outlining a $250 million school-funding plan to fill the BOEs $120 million budget gap. Fulop and Yun proposed a three-year commitment to transfer $40 million over from tax abatements to the BOE.  Their plan would also include spending cuts on firefighter and police recruitment, a pay freeze for select staff, limits on overtime pay and a school tax levy. School taxes are part of a homeowner’s property tax.

Board President Lorenzo Richardson spoke briefly about the mayor’s press conference, saying that he sent the mayor an email the morning of the press conference “providing directives as to what the needs of the schools are in terms of funding from the city.” In the email, President Richardson requested that the city fulfill its commitment to cover the state’s funding cut, which is projected to be $72 million (previously believed to be less than $55 million).

“At this time, we are dealing with funding issues related to state cuts,” President Lorenzo said at the start of the public forum.

Parent Nancy Pokler address the School Board.  Photo by Sally Deering

The board president then opened the public meeting to the small group of parents and educators who came to talk. Jersey City resident and P.S. 5 parent Nancy Pokler talked about the loss of 200 public school positions including 160 teachers, 25 assistants and aides, 20 janitorial, security and food service staff, and 15 administrator and supervisor positions. She spoke of the state’s SFRA (School Funding Reform Act) formula of 2008, used to determine how much each school district receives in funding.

“The SFRA shows that Jersey City can and should be funding its own schools,” Pokler said. “Jersey City has the largest tax base in the entire state and shockingly one of the lowest school tax rates, ranking 532 out of the 565 municipalities.”

Jyl Josephson, parent of a P.S. 26 fifth grader, said that she didn’t want to talk about the numbers. Instead she wanted to talk about Jersey City’s schoolchildren. Josephson told the board that in the past she attended many public-school board meetings where parents made demands about what they wanted without ever mentioning their children’s needs. Josephson said she hoped the board would focus on the children above all else.

“As you begin to make the many difficult and important decisions that you’ll be making over the next few months, I want you to start right now by thinking about children, children that are your primary constituents,” Josephson said. “Our schools have the task of identifying and finding our children’s talents, seeing their beauty and potential, helping them correct their mistakes and do better next time so they can become adults who live together and take care of each other in this beautiful and vibrant democracy. I hope that throughout this process, you will take a moment and imagine the kids and put those kids first.”

School Nurse at P.S. 6 in Jersey City for 18 years, Jackie Matthews asked the board to hire mental health counselors for children who are suffering from extreme anxiety and parental neglect. She said many of the children who are general education students come to school tired, hungry, and filled with anxiety. These children need counseling, she said.

“The children with IEPs get counseling from the social worker, from the school psychologist,  that’s part of their IEP,” Matthews said. “I’m talking about the general ed students who come to school tired, who come to school in the same clothes, who come to school unable to learn because they’re hungry. They’re anxious children who are empty vessels who I fill up one day and who come back the next day empty again.”

Prof. Jyl Josephson

After all the speakers addressed the board, Superintendent Walker thanked them for expressing their concerns about the students. He said the board will focus on restoring “appropriate staff and services to meet the educational needs of the students.”

President Richardson then closed the meeting with a promise to address the issues brought up by the parents and educators. He said, “We will be keeping all your comments in mind and make sure we do everything we can to make sure this budget respects every student in this district.”

President Richardson also said there will be more public meetings scheduled before the March 20 deadline.

Board members in attendance: Superintendent Franklin Walker, President Lorenzo Richardson, Vice President Gina Verdibello, Alexander Hamilton, Gerald Lyons, Marilyn Roman, Lekendrick Shaw, Joan Terrell-Paige, Noemi Velazquez, and School Business Administrator/Board Secretary Regina Robinson.

 

Next Regular Meeting of the School Board
Thurs, Feb. 27, 6 p.m.
P.S. 41 (Fred W. Martin Center for the Arts)
59 Wilkinson Ave, Jersey City
For more info: jcboe.org

 

Header: School board holds special meeting for input on 2020-2021 budget.  Photo by Sally Deering

 

 

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Mayor Fulop

Mayor Fulop and Councilman Yun Design $250 Million Plan to Fix School Budget Over Next Three Years


Mayor and Councilman Partner on Initiative to Fund Jersey City Schools
Revenue from Abatements, a Tax Levy and Budget Cuts All Part of the Plan

Taking steps to address Jersey City Public School’s $120 million budget gap, Mayor Steven Fulop and Ward D Councilman Michael Yun partnered on the Jersey City School Funding Action Plan they outlined for the next three years. Revenue from tax abatements, a school tax levy, the sale of city-owned property along with the 1% payroll tax already in place, are all part of the $250 million plan.

“Today we are discussing a three-year, $250 million plan to solve the crisis facing the Jersey City schools,” Mayor Fulop began. “It speaks to the seriousness that we view this problem and the commitment we have to making sure that Jersey City kids have the best opportunities possible.”

Mayor Fulop’s school funding plan

Jersey City Public School funding has hit a snag. The district will lose approximately $27 million in state aid this year. That reduction along with the deficit the Board of Education (BOE ) has carried these past five years are all part of the $120 million budget crisis. Mayor Fulop and Councilman Yun’s plan targets a quarter of a billion dollars to be funneled to Jersey City’s schools over the next three years.

Mayor Fulop and Councilman Yun met with stakeholders including parents, teachers and BOE administrators to come up with a strategy to bridge the funding gap. The plan includes new revenues, the 1% payroll tax, and a tax levy increase that comes to about $9 per taxpayer.

“Last year, we implemented the payroll tax and we expect that payroll tax to yield upwards of $80 million dollars this year,” Mayor Fulop said. “The last couple of months the Councilman and I have been meeting with PTA groups and we’ve introduced our budget earlier than ever so that we could make aggressive changes.”

The $250 million plan would restructure the Municipal budget to share the tax abatement shortfall in its entirety for 2020, 2021, and 2022; in total, an estimated $40 million that would go to the schools. The plan would collect $55 million from the city’s payroll tax, $15 million from the sale of the city’s Claremont Avenue property, $2 million from a Board of Education energy audit; $13 million from lead remediation; $5 million from a health benefits audit, $45 million from the Board of Education Operational Efficiency Corrective Action, and $75 million from the Municipal School Tax Levy Adjustment.

“We’ve increased the tax levy by 57% on the municipal side gradually over time and that would equate to a $9 increase per year,” Mayor Fulop said. “We think that’s manageable. We recognize that there are a lot of seniors in Jersey City and a lot of people on a fixed income that are still struggling, so we want to make sure that we’re able to achieve a solution that funds the schools but at the same time takes into account people who are on a fixed income.”

For example, a $25M increase to the 2020-2021 school levy, which can only be set by the schools, will result in a $101 annual increase ($9 a month) to CY 2020 residential taxpayers with an assessment of $440,000, the 2019 average. The BOE’s plans, so far, have been to rely on tax increases to bridge its budget gap, whereas the Mayor’s plan is less reliant on taxpayers.

Ward D Councilman Michael Yun discusses the school budget crisis

“We tried to minimize the tax increase for the people of Jersey City,” Councilman Yun said.

In addition, Mayor Fulop and the City Council approved an audit to review all PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) agreements. The audit is to ensure the city receives the revenue outlined in each PILOT agreement. Any additional dollars discovered in the audit would go to the BOE. Although it’s possible audit savings could go unrealized, the Mayor’s office said its confident the projections are both achievable and reasonable.

On the downside, the 2020 plan calls for a reduction in police recruiting, fire recruiting, overtime, hiring and pay freezes. Mayor Fulop and Councilman Yun’s JCSFAP plan will give the schools $10 million from city budget cuts that include $2,.2 million in voluntary buyouts, $2 million in overtime reduction, $1.2 million from a pay freeze, $1.17 million from police recruitment reduction, $1.13 from fire recruitment reduction, $1 million in security contract reduction, $800,000 from operational efficiencies, and $500,000 from a health benefit waiver phase out.

“We are making sacrifices, and hard choices,” Mayor Fulop said.

In 2020, the City would move $10 million over to share from abatement revenue. By 2022, $40 million would be shared. Mayor Fulop said he’s committed to 100% sharing of abatement revenue. Jersey City has 178 tax abatements.

“That’s above and beyond anybody’s request,” Mayor Fulop said. “We think its proper to move into the direction of 100% sharing.”

Additional money for the deficit will come in when the city acquires the Claremont Avenue property where the Board of Education’s central office is headquartered, Mayor Fulop said. The city will lease it back to the school board for $1. This would be a solution to getting the BOE some additional dollars, rather than the proposal last year to sell it on the private market.

“There’s no secret we’ve been proactive with the schools,” Mayor Fulop said “We’ve done our best to highlight the fact that the city wants to do its part. We’ve outlined how we’re going to get there. It’s a $1/4 billion commitment. We think that’s meaningful.”

Header:  Mayor Steven Fulop and Ward D Councilman Michael Yun hold a press conference in City Hall Tuesday to outline their plan to fix the school budget deficit.  Photo by Sally Deering

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Parents Plea for Funding as Schools

Parents Plea for Funding as Schools Face Massive Budget Gap


Jersey City School Board Meeting Gets Emotional as Parents and Teachers Demand Action

To Fix Budget Deficit

Ninety-nine Jersey City residents—mostly moms, dads and teachers—signed up to speak at the Jan. 30 Jersey City School Board meeting at PS 41 (Fred W. Martin Center for the Arts) to address the $150 million budget gap. Many of the parents shared personal stories of the negative effects underfunding has had on their children’s education, and after they addressed the board, the parents ended their speeches with the battle cry, “Fund our schools!”

Parent Jenny Pu speaks out against the under-funding of Jersey City schools.

“I’m a parent at PS 37,” Jenny Pu said, addressing the board. “Tonight, you’re going to hear what underfunding means for parents in every part of the city. But beneath each story is a question you as the Jersey City Board of Education will get to answer in the coming weeks: How much do you value our children?”

The Jersey City Board of Education continues to grapple with an estimated $150 million deficit for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Last year, the district lost $27 million in state aid, which was replaced with a new Jersey City payroll tax. Last year, the Jersey City school board sued the state over the loss of aid and to stop an anticipated $180 million in funding cuts over the next several years.

The PS 41 auditorium filled to capacity with parents lining up to speak at the public comment section of the meeting. Many held “Fund Our School” signs as Jersey City mom Rya Cawley stepped up and spoke about building issues at PS No. 39 where her son Taylor attended Pre-K. On the first day of school, Cawley remembers the toilets in the Pre-K bathroom were broken, so teachers had to shuttle kids to the main bathroom where there was only one working sink.

“I spoke to parents who had children in that school for many years, and they said that sometimes the school can’t afford water so they send letters home to please send their children to school with bottled water,” Cawley said. “Let’s give our children a sense of dignity where they can go in and drink clean water and wash their hands with clean water. Fund our schools.”

Special Education teacher Maria Enriquez speaks up for teacher’s aides

Special Ed Teacher Maria Enriquez works with students in the Leaps and Bounds program at Ferris High School, where she relies on teachers’ aides to help students who have cognitive impairments and who need one-on-one assistance to go to the bathroom and perform everyday tasks. Enriquez’s biggest concern was losing teachers’ aides.

“As you decide what to cut and where to cut your budget, please consider our aides,” Enriquez says. “We need them. The students need them.”

Jersey City mom Emily Peco reminded the board of the importance of standing up for its constituents with disabilities. She said it doesn’t matter whether a child has physical challenges, behavioral challenges, cognitive challenges, speech challenges or any other special needs, the experience of living with a disability “permeates a child’s life and their parents’ life”.

“I’ve heard countless parents share their struggles with our special-education department,” Peco told the board. “We are exhausted. Money will fix this. Each of you will need to be brave enough to do the right thing. Integrity cannot be quantified. Show your priorities. You know what’s worse to increasing taxes? Closing schools. Your constituents are here and we are asking you to fund our schools.”

Other Matters Discussed

During the meeting, Superintendent Franklin Walker updated the parents on the Wuhan Coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, the Wuhan Coronavirus is a global health emergency that has claimed the lives of more than 300 people in China and has spread to at least 23 countries including the U.S.  Superintendent Walker assured parents there was no need for alarm.

“You likely have seen or read reports about the new Coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China,” Walker said to the packed auditorium. “There were a number of calls that have been made to the Jersey City public schools questioning whether or not cases have been identified. I need to let you know there are no suspected cases or confirmed cases of the coronavirus in New Jersey. Our school nurses have been in communication with the Hudson County Regional Health Commission to monitor the situation and will follow their recommendations.”

Superintendent Walker also introduced eight new principals assigned to Jersey City schools for the 2019-2020 school year.

At the meeting, all school board members including President Lorenzo Richardson, Vice President Gina Verdibello, Mussab Ali, Alexander Hamilton, Gerald Lyons, Marilyn Roman, Lekendrick Shaw, Joan Terell-Paige, and Noemi Velazquez were in attendance.

Header: Jersey City School Board meeting held Thursday evening at PS No. 41

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